It is Friday afternoon and Jimmy Vasser, the former race-car driver, is waiting on a Cobb salad at the Canyon Gate Country Club grill. In the distance are tranquil lagoons, the No. 2 tee box and the house in which Vasser has sort of lived the past 16 years, because race-car people tend to crisscross the globe and so they are not home a lot.
Jimmy Vasser was a much better race-car driver than he is a golfer. He says he doesn’t really play golf. When he does, he likes to play barefoot, and it’s usually only for a few holes, at sundown. He does not keep score. In his sport, they have guys with stopwatches and lap charts who do that for you.
Had this been, say, St. Elmo’s Steak House in downtown Indianapolis during the month of May, people would be approaching Vasser for his autograph. But this is Las Vegas, during the month of July. It is hotter than a turbocharged Offy outside, so hardly anybody is playing golf.
We have the dining room practically to ourselves, running out front in the clean air, as they say in Jimmy’s sport.
So Vasser pulls up the leg of his shorts to show me this angry splotch of skin and bone on his upper thigh. This is where he broke his femur in his rookie race at Indianapolis, in 1992. That was the last time legends A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Gordon Johncock and Tom Sneva drove in the 500-mile race, the one where Al Unser Jr. nipped Scott Goodyear at the line, the closest Indy ever.
Foyt started a couple of rows ahead of Vasser. Somebody told Jimmy he might be a good guy to follow on race day. So Vasser did. But there were pit stops and the order got shuffled and Vasser crashed on one of restarts. Cold tires. It was 50 degrees at Indy that year. A lot of guys (13) crashed on cold tires on restarts.
“One of the really top rookies in the field,” Sam Posey said on TV after Vasser clouted the wall. “He’s got a really big future.”
The reason Vasser showed me that angry splotch of skin and bone was that until this year’s race, that was his most compelling Indianapolis 500 souvenir. He finished fourth in 1994 and fourth again years later, after the politics of racing resulted in two separate series for Indy-style cars.
When Vasser was in his prime, he drove in the series that did not race at the Indianapolis 500. He won three 500-mile races and the 1996 CART series championship while driving for Chip Ganassi. By the time the rival leagues merged, Vasser was more or less retired. Now he’s 47 and co-owns an IndyCar team, and two race cars.
One of his cars, driven by the popular Brazilian Tony Kanaan, won this year’s thrilling Indy 500 on a restart three laps from the end. Kanaan did not have cold tires. So pretty soon, Jimmy Vasser will be receiving a “mini-Borg” in the mail.
The Borg-Warner Trophy goes to the winner of the Indy 500. It is insured for more than $1.3 million. Next to hockey’s Stanley Cup, it might be the most valuable trophy in sports.
Tony Kanaan took the “maxi-Borg” — the real one, not a replica — on the Letterman show after he won the 500. He and Dave rubbed their hands all over it, like it was a genie’s lamp. They left fingerprints on Parnelli Jones’ bas-relief likeness, and on Mario’s and A.J.’s, and on Louie Meyer’s, who lived in Searchlight until he died. And on the sterling silver faces of various Unsers — Big Al, Little Al, Uncle Bobby.
Generally, that sort of thing is frowned upon. As is playing golf in bare feet.
Jimmy Vasser says when the mini-Borg arrives, he’ll probably put it on the floor with the other trophies and cups he has received for winning automobile races, in what eventually will become the trophy room of his house on the No. 2 tee box.
“It’s up there,” he says about winning the 500 as a car owner. “It’s not the same as driving.
“Having said that, I had never been on the timing stand, to see the emotion on that side of it. (Vasser called Kanaan’s race, discussing strategy with his driver via two-way radio.) And so there I was, running to Victory Circle with my fist in the air.”
That could have been him in 1996, when he won the CART championship and all those races driving for Ganassi. But Vasser doesn’t believe in what could have been, only in what is. He lives in the moment. There can be no other way for people in his sport.
“Bad timing? You could get stopped at a red light on the way to the Strip, and that might keep you from meeting the woman that could change your whole life,” says Vasser, who has never married.
So now he has his Cobb salad, and he drinks his glass of vine — Vasser recently opened his own winery, called V12 Vineyards (after his car number) in California’s Napa Valley — without people coming up to him.
(For the record, he’s great interacting with fans who do recognize him.)
“Hey, Jimmy, how’s it going?” one of the waiters calls out just as Vasser is saying how he enjoys blending in with Canyon Gate’s tranquil lagoons.
Jimmy Vasser notices my raised eyebrow.
“Oh, him? He’s originally from Indiana.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.